The CTA Way: Declare Victory after Every Defeat

California’s Democratic legislature and Republican governor have just agreed to a budget dealing new, devastating blows to poor and working people and another gift to corporations and the rich.  It delivers $9 billion in cuts to kindergarten-through-university public education, and eliminates billions more in services to the families of low-income students. All proposals to mitigate the damage with new taxes, including a modest tax on oil production, were dropped. So naturally the California Teachers Association went all out to lobby for the budget’s approval. And when it passed Friday, CTA thanked “our many members who have reached out to Legislators and the Governor to ensure education is not forgotten during the budget crisis.”

Confused? You wouldn’t be if you’d been following CTA over the years. CTA regularly pumps up its membership to “fight” for school funding and then lets the air out in the name of pragmatism. In 2004 CTA affiliates around the state joined in the campaign to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to increase taxes on commercial property to fund public schools. After all of the time, effort, and $3.4 million of members’ dues had been spent qualifying the initiative for the ballot, CTA pulled the plug. The following year it repeated the scenario, this time announcing its withdrawal at a press conference flanked by manufacturers and commercial property owners who thanked CTA for backing off of progressive taxation that would have “severely damaged business, costing jobs and threatening our economy.” (Sacramento Bee, 8/5/2005)

How much smaller would this year’s budget gap have been if that initiative had gone forward and raised a projected $2.8 billion annually over the past several years? That alone could have prevented many of the latest cuts to K-12, health coverage, and in-home care, and the layoffs and job furloughs for public workers, and the hefty fee increases for college students. But the revenue was traded, said then-CTA President Barbara Kerr,  for a promise from real estate and other corporate interests to “talk about adequate and equitable funding for our schools, and [to] to work together to make that happen.” Good call.

But maybe I’m being unfair. CTA has a different way of getting things done. In 2006 then-CTA Secretary-Treasurer Dean Vogel (now CTA Vice President) explained it to me after speaking to a membership meeting of my union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA). I asked him why CTA had endorsed State Superintendent Jack O’Connell for re-election, even though O’Connell had consistently backed union-bashing, privatizing policies through the state administrators he’d appointed to run our district. (Oakland came under O’Connell’s control in 2003 when it took state money to fill a large fiscal hole in 2003—a hole the state deepened during its six-year reign.) Vogel answered that withholding an endorsement would only end O’Connell’s cooperation with CTA on many important issues. Because of its positive relationship with O’Connell, CTA leaders learn about every single piece of legislation at the earliest stages, putting it into a position to effectively influence California’s education policy, he said.

“And look where it’s gotten us,” I said.

“Yes, look where it’s gotten us,” Vogel replied, and then he gave a stunning example to support his position: In the midst of a budget crisis in 2003, then Senate President Pro-Tem John Burton (Democrat) told CTA leaders, “It’s time for you to take a hit.” He told them that public schools would get $6 billion less than they were entitled to under Proposition 98, which guarantees public schools 40% of the general fund.

“But that’s not how it went down,” said Vogel. He boasted that because of CTA’s relationship with O’Connell, every time there’s a meeting on education between the governor, the legislative leaders, (“The Big 5”) and the state superintendent, “we are right there in the room.” So instead of taking a $6 billion hit, it was “just $2 billion.”

Vogel’s explanation gives a clear view of a top union leader who’s “given a place at the table” with the politically powerful. We’re supposed to be grateful that the top politicians let one of “us” into the house to sit down with them as they deliberate over our fate. When they threaten to chop off both arms, but leave us with one, our “leaders” declare victory.

Next: What other choices do we have?